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  • Sara Needleman

More Big Ideas and Essential Questions

(Part one in a series)

It’s great to talk about using an approved set of standards to guide our daily and weekly instruction, but how do we actually DO that? On Monday Abner wrote on the topic of teaching to big ideas, mentioning some of our partner schools where that sort of practice is thriving. But it’s not easy. I think I have shared in the past that in addition to my work with JumpRope, I also teach pre-service teachers at the University of Southern Maine. One of my favorite courses to teach is Curriculum Design. I love it because it forces both my students and me to make some very tangible connections between theory and practice. I’m also really passionate about it because I get to share my interpretation of Grant Wiggins’ and Jay McTighe’s comprehensive path to proficiency-based curriculum development: Backwards design.

My intention for this series of blog posts is to deconstruct parts of the assignment central to my Curriculum Design class: the creation of an actual middle or high school course. My hope, or Long Term Target (terms in red are defined below in a glossary), as it were, is that some of our readers will deepen their own understanding of backwards design so that they might apply it to their practice. One of my intended Enduring Understandings, though, is just as I state in my course: [Readers] will understand that curriculum may be created in myriad ways, but that certain elements anchor any sound curriculum and that the establishment of these elements requires careful consideration.

A typical and more traditional approach to curriculum design would have us start with the standards. I have a different starting place for us. I don’t mean to suggest that making the standards the birthplace for your ideas is bad but rather suggest that that is merely one place to start. Teachers are creative, knowledgeable, kid-focused people. As such, we teachers likely know, or with some work, could identify, the big ideas our instruction could stem from. So let’s start with those big ideas.

Backwards design asks us to move from topics (like “butterflies,” “pioneers,” “fractions,” “ecosystems,” “The Civil War,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “algebra”) to the big ideas that might connect topics (like “cycles,” “migration,” “problem-solving,” “change and continuity,” “liberty,” “commitment,” and “inquiry”). As a classroom teacher, I like to think through the big ideas I know I need to address, those that I’m excited about sharing with my students. I feel more compelled and indeed more prepared to write engaging curricula with this as my starting place as opposed to the Common Core, the Next Generation Science Standards, or some other set of standards. Once we find those big, transferrable ideas, we can begin to write some Essential Questions. Here’s a graphic I share with students to help them begin to write essential questions (EQs).

Here are some sample EQs I have taken directly from Wiggins and McTighe:

Can everything be quantified? What do the best problem solvers do? What determines value? What can we learn about our own language and culture from studying another? How does where we live influence how we live? Can fiction reveal truth? What makes a great story? How does an organism’s structure enable it to survive in its environment? How and why does matter change?

When I’m designing curricula, I start with the big ideas and then move to the essential questions. My next step is an examination of the standards and what we have all come to call “unpacking.” I use my big ideas and essential questions to help me think about where I will place those unpacked standards. Examining the standards will be my starting point in my next post.

Glossary of terms:

  1. Long Term Target (LTT): Written at the unit level, with a “unit” being defined by a topic of study (a novel, a period in history, the coordinate plane, simple machines, etc.) or a period of time (four weeks, first quarter, etc.) LTTs are the assessable outcomes of the unit; they are the measurements of the factual, conceptual and skill-based knowledge you intend to teach. Any given unit should have between five and eight LTTs.

  2. Enduring Understanding (EU): May be written at the unit or course level. An abstract, generalizable idea, extending beyond a single topic because it is transferrable. It necessarily must be studied over a period of time to be fully grasped.

  3. Essential Question (EQ): May be written at the unit or course level. A question pointing to the essence of a topic which itself can be transferred to other topics or disciplines. Should be written in student-friendly language.


Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design. New Jersey: Pearson, 2005. Print.

McTighe, Jay and Wiggins, Grant. Understanding by Design Professional Development Workbook. Virginia: ASCD, 2004. Print.

(I got the great pic up above from here.)

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